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The University of Southampton

Study shows photos of empty supermarket shelves instigate panic buying

Published: 20 March 2020
Empty shelves
Images of empty shelves can prompt people to panic buy. Image by John Cameron on Unsplash.

Research from University of Edinburgh Business School and the University of Southampton has found that photographs of empty supermarket shelves in news stories about panic buying instigate people to follow the buying frenzy.

The study, which analysed responses from 230 British adults*, found that those exposed to images of empty supermarket shelves were more likely to panic buy. A news story accompanied by an image of empty shelves saw an increase of 86% in of the amount of people who said this would make them want to panic buy, compared to if they saw an image of full shelves. In addition, 33% of participants in the study admitted to stockpiling supplies.

As part of the research, respondents were shown fictional news items accompanied by either images of empty supermarket shelves or full shelves. They were then asked to record their level of panic and intention to stockpile, amongst other variables.

In addition, the study also asked the participants to rate how likely they were to click on one of the fictional articles if the headline was accompanied by a picture of empty shelves.  The articles with empty shelves received 36% more clicks compared to full shelves.

Dr Rob Angell, Associate Professor in Marketing Research from University of Southampton, said:  “When the imagery shows an empty shelf, people are drawn to the fact that others have already acted and that they are potentially behind the curve. This ends up negating  positive and pro-social messages in the article itself. If a picture is worth 1000 words, then getting it right, at a time of such importance, is absolutely necessary.” 

Dr Ben Marder, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at University of Edinburgh Business School, said: “In these uncertain times with the coronavirus outbreak affecting all our lives, using images of empty shelves is a critical mistake in trying to calm panic buying. As such, we urge news and government communications to be extremely cautious. It is important to be aware that with a picture of full shelves the message that there was no need to panic buy succeeded.

“In addition, the fact that news articles receive more clicks if they used images of empty shelves, shows that measuring the success of stories by the number of clicks can detract from the media’s ability to convey important social messages.”

*The study was carried out between 15 and 16 March among 230 adults residing in the UK. This was a joint project by University of Edinburgh Business School and the University of Southampton.

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